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The Story of Sarkis wou Bakhous
The Story of Sarkis wou Bakhous
Alia Fares
It was early afternoon on a beautiful sunny day around the end of April. We had started our descent from the hills of Akkar el Atiqa towards Helsban valley. Qubayat, our final destination, was only a few more km away. The scenery on top of the hill was breathtaking. Red earth passages under ever ascending pine trees, then suddenly it changes to rocky limestone, rugged and old, flowers of the most diverse species and colors that had stolen our eyes. We were about 40 hikers, a mixture of Lebanese and foreigners with only one aim: to be as close to nature as possible. The hike had begun at 8 in the morning and I was told there will soon be a break. I was already exhausted and could not wait to rest my tired feet. As we got closer to a heavily oak tree populated area, Christian, our guide, called upon me and said that I should take the front. I asked him why, and he answered with his pleasant smile that I was going to arrive to a hidden archaeological treasure, the church of Sarkis and Bakhous.

Upon hearing this news, all exhaustion departed from my feet. I stared heavily into the distance, waiting to see the first signs, and there, in between a colony of enormous oak trees, lay hidden the first stone wall. I jumped in ecstasy. All along the trail I had been seeing abandoned humble shepherd stone houses, deserted oil presses and empty Byzantine rock-cut tombs. This site was much bigger. As I approached the first wall, I realized that there several other walls surrounding it. I climbed over a fence made of a few courses of unchiseled rugged stone blocks and saw ahead of me a larger wall several meters in height. This wall was built using well chiseled limestone blocks and it incorporated a door in its center with well fitted side posts and top lintel, as well as an adjacent window. The lower courses of the wall were covered with earth, but the door space was passage free. It was indeed the main entrance into what possibly might be a prayer hall. As I entered through the door, I perceived a large room made up of 4 walls. 2 major pier foundations, which would have carried a cross-vaulted ceiling could be seen next to the main door and on the opposite side. Looking upwards along the walls, I saw a huge trunk of an oak tree, which had infiltrated with its roots, creating cracks here and there, and causing certain parts to collapse entirely. Perpendicular to the entrance towards the left, another wall with a partially collapsed semi-dome could was visible. This was a sensation! I had located the church’s apse and it was still intact! I climbed on top of the rubble and got close enough to the apse. Upon further examination, I noticed that the surface of the apse wall had been plastered with a variety of frescoes. I looked on the ground and I saw further fresco layering that had recently fell off. The lower wall sections revealed frescoes of human figures partially intact with details such as their sandals, robes and lower bodies still visible. The hall had been filled by a thick layer of rubble and debris, about 2m in height. I climbed on top of the rubble hill and looked towards the South, realizing that there was another room that ran parallel to this one. Looking into this second hall towards the East, another semi-circular structure arises. It was another apse. A church with 2 halls!

In the midst of all this euphoria, and while standing in complete bewilderment, I saw a man standing on top of the remains of one of the walls of the adjacent hall. He carried a shovel in his hand. Behind him, 2 other men stood there with buckets and a rifle. They were clearly not one of the 40 hikers and their shovels revealed their actual task: they were clandestine looters. I directly informed my hiking friends and Christian, who rushed to the Lebanese army commandos hiking with us to take action. In the meantime, I got closer to the men and began to interrogate them. They denied their purpose. So the army took them in custody. The Directorate General of Antiquities was informed and we decided to take the suspected men with us to the closest police station. I walked around the church for another few minutes and discovered a rock-cut tomb below the first apse, probably the burial place of its pastor. We all had to embark and continue our hike. Even though the story of the 3 clandestine looters had hit the newspapers the next day, the church was forgotten once again. I, on the other hand, bid the church a farewell, fully convinced that I was going to return. It had captured my heart. That was April 2012.
Who are Sarkis wou Bakhous? According to local present day historians, Sarkis and Bakhos were initially 2 officers in the Roman army in Syria serving under Emperor Galerius, who ruled over Syria around the end of the 3rd C. A.D. After being asked to attend to sacrifices to the god Zeus, their Christian devoutness was revealed. They were thus imprisoned and ultimately tortured to death by the Romans in 303 A.D. As a result, these so called military saints became martyres. Their Hagiography mentions them as being treasured as saints by both the Eastern Orthodox as well as the Western Catholic Church. Their initial shrine was located in Resafa, Syria, but after the 4th c., many churches around the Middle East were built and dedicated to their martyrdom. Every year, on October 7th, the date of the beheading of Sergius, pilgrims head up to the church to celebrate the Saint’s martyrdom in prayer inside the church’s halls. This tradition continues until today, as the local Maronite church of Qubayat organizes a hike up to the church to celebrate the death of their beloved saints.

As the tradition dictates, the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association adopts a new theme every year. In 2015 its dictum was the protection and preservation of the Lebanon’s archaeological and cultural heritage along the trail. Sarkis wou Bakhous became suddenly part of a large scale project aimed at highlighting, surveying and protecting this heritage. Therefore, and in close cooperation with the Directorate General of Antiquities, the local municipalities and/or authorities, 4 specific sites were focused on during the April 2015 Through-Walk, including Sarkis wou Bakhous, Hasbaya Citadel, the Roman temple of Afqa and Hadrian’s inscription in Tannourine. This initial “highlighting phase” included historical explanations and cleaning activities. As a second step, the project was expanded. A database was initiated, built up of individual technical data sheets, comprising information such as the site’s geographical position using GPS, archaeological data, present state of preservation, a coding system for future referencing, architectural descriptions and future recommendations. It was also established that specific sites would be further studied in depth due to on their uniqueness, historical importance and endangered status. Sarkis wou Bakhous was chosen as one of the few sites that urgently needed further evaluation, study and protection. It became the first to be surveyed. A team was built, made up of the architect Antoine Atallah, photographer Nadim Asfar and topographer Chady Baisare, as well as myself as site archaeologist. In November 2015, and for 3 days, a detailed architectural and site survey at Sarkis wou Bakhous was generated and the end result produced a site map that will be used on 2 site panels with historical information in the future.

The church of Sarkis and Bakhous is but one example of many treasures hidden in between the remote villages and valleys along the Lebanon Mountain Trail, in urgent need of care, study, protection and preservation for future generations to enjoy and for the sake of culture and peace.
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